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In September of 2014, we introduced you to a company called...
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Insect aerodynamics inspire a unique approach to next-generation drone development.
Physical Sciences Inc. (PSI), based in Andover, Massachusetts, has been in business since 1973, flourishing on a steady diet of funded R&D projects. Originally led by a small group of scientists, the company has grown to encompass more than 200 employee-owners and a dozen facilities across the country, including a recently-opened 33,000-square-foot robotics manufacturing facility in Andover. Despite sequestration and other challenges faced by federal government contractors, PSI's revenues have grown consistently in recent years, with consolidated revenues growing at 15% per year over the past five years.
Central to its ongoing success has been PSI's participation in the government's Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program. SBIR is a highly competitive, merit-based program that encourages domestic small businesses to engage in federal research/research and development (R/R&D) that has the potential for commercialization.
"Continued participation in the program requires a commitment to transitioning SBIR technologies into the marketplace in the form of innovative products and services," says PSI CFO Steve Genestreti. Think of PSI as succeeding by "growing technology," acting almost as a technology incubator.
"PSI has been very successful at this, at times investing significant internal funds to support commercialization activities," he adds. "These products have spanned a wide range of technologies, including medical products, telecommunications devices, chemical leak detectors and, most recently, its highly successful family of unmanned aerial vehicles."
A drone breakthrough
To Genestreti's last point, about six years ago, the company began working on drone technology, called InstantEye, that is now making a major advance in the market. What makes it different from the many drones currently available?
"InstantEye's ruggedness and agility allow it to operate in environments that other unmanned aircraft either can't, or won't, because of fear of costly damage or loss," explains Dr. Tom Vaneck, a PSI vice president, and a founder of the InstantEye business. "We like to say that we can fly in any environment that our operators work in—rain, snow, wind, heat...it doesn't matter—we're there when you need us. Most importantly, InstantEye is easy to operate and customizable with different payloads so the operator can get the information they need, when and where it is needed. In addition, the days of virtually unlimited budgets are over, and our system is affordable to buy and own as we're at a price point significantly lower than other professional or military unmanned systems."
What makes the craft's development truly unique is that a majority of InstantEye's benefits were derived from the study of insects. In focusing on identifying ways that small robotic aircraft could fly rapidly and safely through complex dynamic environments, the development team happened to observe a house fly banging into a window. At this point, the engineering effort pivoted from a "see and avoid all obstacles" approach to a "try and avoid obstacles, but be able to survive collisions and rapidly recover from upsets."
"Nature's approach is to evolve creatures that mostly avoid hitting things but are able in many cases to collide with objects but recover quickly," says Vaneck. "Insects and birds became our inspiration."
Given the difficulties in raising and working with flies, the team turned to moths as they're fairly easy to raise, are very agile in flight, and are large enough to easily attach instruments and capture if they try to make a run for it. The early research evolved into robust structural designs that are resistant to impacts; aerodynamic techniques that minimize impact severity and allow for rapid post-collision recovery; and autopilot architectures that provide agility in normal flight as well as the moments just after a collision with an obstacle in the environment.
Moving in new market directions
InstantEye has become a next-level product for PSI. Already a professional system widely used by the military, the drones are becoming increasingly popular with first responders and a wide variety of other industries. And its success has taken the company in new directions.
"To ensure that we would be responsive to our customers' needs and guarantee the quality of our products, we've built teams that do everything from initial concepts, through production, to post-sales training and support," Genestreti says. "The individual teams work very closely together so that we can respond to issues or customer demands quickly and efficiently. To get our products into the hands of customers we sell directly and use a network of distributors, both domestically and internationally. The market space is really taking off, and we're taking off with it."
To supports its long-term growth, PSI supplements its own cash reserves with a $5 million line of credit with Salem Five Bank. But the relationship between PSI and Salem Five is about more than just money.
“Our relationship with Salem Five has been an important part of our success in transitioning from a small R&D firm to a diverse technology company providing a wide range of products and services for a variety of markets,” says Genestreti.
In the InstantEye example, he says, PSI saw early on that small drones had the possibility of becoming a very disruptive technology and that it had an opportunity to be a major player in that market. Over the course of approximately six years, the firm invested heavily in product development, assembling a world-class technical and marketing team.
“Initially, this investment caused PSI to run in the red for the first time in our history,” Genestreti relates. “The Salem Five team was involved with our business plan at every step along the way. They not only tolerated our investment, but encouraged it, putting in the effort to see the big picture and asking how they could be of help. Our business relationship helped give us the confidence to aggressively move into this market and now it’s really paying off.”